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See Inside Scientific American Volume 311, Issue 1

Electronic Skin Moves Us Closer to Cyborgs

The filmlike patches can keep track of brain activity, medication needs, wound healing and more



JOHN ROGERS University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

“Electronic skin” is blurring the lines between biological tissue and electronics. These filmlike patches, introduced in 2011, contain incredibly thin circuits, sensors and other electronic components and mount onto the skin with all the flexibility and stretchiness of a temporary tattoo. Within the past few months scientists have demonstrated numerous practical applications for the devices, setting the stage for a revolution in health care monitoring.

Electronic skin can keep tabs on:

The Brain
When placed on the forehead, it can read the electrical activity of the brain and provide electroencephalographic data just as well as conventional wired devices while being far more comfortable and less motion-restrictive—a boon for neonatal intensive care units.

Wounds
By measuring temperature changes near a surgical wound, it can spot early signs of inflammation and infection. It can also gauge how well a cut is healing by measuring hydration levels (proper recovery requires moisture).

Motion
When integrated with an accelerometer, it can collect body-motion data throughout the day. This information is vital to understanding how a patient with Parkinson's disease, for instance, responds to new treatments.

Medication Needs
With memory, physiological sensors and onboard prescription drugs, it can store diagnostic information and then deliver the correct drug dosage when a patient needs it.

The Heart
Applied surgically, large electronic-skin membranes can envelope the heart to fully oversee cardiac activity or possibly to function as low-energy pacemakers or implantable cardioverter defibrillators (devices that help to control irregular heartbeats) in the future.

This article was originally published with the title "The Circuit Made for Your Arm."

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